#traffikfreetravel: Transport and Trafficking

NMT TFT Blog-15

Transport and Trafficking 

Human trafficking is the transport of people for the purpose of exploitation. Transport is also likely to be the point at which the victim is most visible and accessible, and the trafficker most vulnerable. Travel usually entails being surrounded by people, so traffickers can easily be spotted, intercepted or separated from their victim. It is also a rare time whereby the traffickers level of psychological control over the victim may not be as strong as it was in the place they are being trafficked from. This can either be because the small place the individual is kept makes the trafficker seem bigger and more powerful than they are in the outside world. Alternatively, it may be because when talking and interacting with authorities they may feel less guilty and threatened than when authorities enter into their environment looking for traffickers, or when they approach authorities because of the risk of being caught seeking help. At the border when they are already in the hand of the authorities they are guaranteed protection. Therefore understanding the transport of trafficking is essential to recovering victims, catching traffickers and ensuring that we have as many possible systems in place to recognise victims and traffickers. 

There are a number of ways of transporting people from one place to another that are all found in the UK. Depending upon the origin countries the routes tend to differ. Traffickers are only concerned with profit, therefore they usually choose the cheapest routes (UKHTC 2007). Each route has its own access point and its own vulnerabilities to trafficking in Northern Ireland. By looking at each of these trafficking routes we can evaluate the vulnerabilities and identify potential ways of reducing trafficking. These solutions will be both for the authorities and for us to practice.


One very common transit route for trafficking is by air. The ‘majority’ of trafficking hubs are airports.1 The action plan on tackling Human Trafficking (Home Office and Scottish Executive, 2007),  sees that many human trafficking victims travel by air on low-cost airlines, especially from  Eastern and Southern Europe.  In recent years the number of locations available to travel to from Belfast has increased vastly. It is now as easy to get to New York as it is to London, it can be as cheap to get to Continental Europe as it is to get to Manchester. This is integral to the development of our country but the ease and low cost of travel from the majority of countries to Northern Ireland leaves us vulnerable to this ease of access being exploited to traffik individuals. Unfortunately, this is the dark side to increased mobility. The easier, faster and cheaper travel becomes for us, the wider we open our gates to exploitation. It is very difficult to balance a globalised country with water tight border controls. 

Our small size is exploited.

Due to the combination of our small size and being accessible to further destinations in the UK and Europe, Northern Ireland is the perfect place to attempt to enter. Research has recently recognised that smaller airports in the UK are being targeted by traffickers. (see Beddoe,2007;Kapoor, 2007; Webb and Burrows, 2009) This is due to the increased surveillance and anti-trafficking measures that have been installed in larger airports, particularly London. This has led to a diversification of the transport of trafficking to target destinations where traffickers assume there is less funding, less training, less surveillance and most importantly a smaller number of employees looking for them.  “(T)here does appear to be some diversification of trafficking routes within the UK to areas where authorities are less vigilant or less equipped to deal with the issue” (Chase and Statham (2005),8)

No More Traffik has been encouraged by the awareness and training work at Belfast International Airport within the remit of Border Agency UK, and we’ve enjoyed being a part of the continuation of that work to ensure Northern Ireland is strong in its response to trafficking from all angles.


Northern Ireland could be used as a point of entrance into the UK. We’ll look at this more in depth next week. Therefore, it could be used as not only a destination but as a stopover or transit route.  In this regard internal flights have been used as a convenient and often cheap way of  transporting trafficked victims who have entered the UK through Northern Ireland on the way to their final destination on the mainland. This may mean that even if the victim entered the UK through other means they may depart to their final destination by air. 


Another way of traffickers transporting victims to Northern Ireland is by sea. As Northern Ireland exists on an island entering it by sea is a key way that human traffickers can transport their victims. 

There are three main ways that people are transported by sea: 


The first way that people are transported is by ferry. As well as location of where the trafficker is from, the type of trafficking is also a determinant of the type of trafficking used. For example forced labourers are often transported by ferry, some are even forced to drive vans and work on vehicles whilst travelling to avoid the traffickers being convicted.

Belfast and other places in NI are sea Port Towns, and are therefore “high transit locations” with many being transported to and from the towns by sea. 

It is speculated that as “classic” routes into Britain, for example ferries from France and large airports are increasingly difficult they are now looking at other entry points with “Ireland-Wales ferry links being a major alternative” Independent.ie 2007).  This is due to strengthened border controls and security in London airports meaning that new routes are being utilised6(39) 6.

Fishing boats

Many victims are forced to work on fisheries as forced labourers on the way to their destination, or trafficked to fisheries as their destination. Many of these individuals are easy to control as they are vulnerable, isolated and migrants. A report in 2000 on labour exploitation and abuse on sea vessels concludes that ‘the worst abuses seem to be associated with fishing’(Morris, 2000:2)

The reason that fishing boats are exploited as a means of transporting victims is because they do not necessarily need a visa to travel to the UK. If a seaman is travelling on duty and has an ILO 108 Seaman’s book issued in certain countries, for example Ghana, the seaman does not need to be a national of that issuing country. Therefore they are difficult to immediately recognise as a victim and can easily be transported undetected2 (16). 


Clandestine travel is when individuals travel in some kind of concealed manor. On boats they can be transported in shipping containers. About 500 million containers move each year, which is about 90% of global trade. However, less than two per cent are physically inspected8. Traffickers often target weak, inconsistent and ineffective port controls. It is therefore essential that we make Northern Ireland’s port controls the opposite to deter such activity.

In Northern Ireland especially, as it exists on an island with many ports, travelling by sea is an ideal option and is often utilised for the purposes of exploitation. We are not only vulnerable to trafficking from the sea as a destination but also as a transit route and we may be the first line of defence against criminals. Therefore, it is important to ensure that there are strong measures to protect our sea borders as well as our land and air borders. 


Another way of transporting victims that trafficker’s use is over land. This way is the easiest to go undetected as there is very little interaction with border force. When crossing the only land border the unique sibling like relations between Northern Ireland and the Republic make it so that there are less checks compared to a “hard border” like that of Mexico and America, for example. However, because of the fact that a lot of Northern Ireland’s borders are sea borders, including the UK which it shares a political jurisdiction with, any victim trafficked from outside of the Republic or the North have to either enter by sea or by air. In this way, often victims are trafficked in some sort of combination of land, sea and air transportation. For example, before and after travelling clandestine or by ferry the victim travels by land.

Public transport : rail and bus

Victims can be trafficked by rail. This mode of transportation is less talked about in Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. However, there is no evidence to think it is less used. Although with the convenience and low cost of transporting individuals by car – it is probably the less likely of the two options. However, this is a good opportunity to consider the possibility that the reason trafficking by rail is not often discussed is due to the fact that there are little defences in place to catch traffickers and victims. The use of rail and bus routes by traffickers is best addressed through training staff in spotting the signs of trafficking and making sure the public is aware of the signs so that if an individual was seated in the same carriage as a victim and noticed something suspicious they would report it. If these measures were put in place it would become more difficult for traffickers to operate in our country and deter them from using us as a destination or as a transit route. Furthermore more victims would be recovered.


Many victims travel to Northern Ireland clandestine in the back of lorries. This is because of the ease of travel by land. As has been said, travel between the North and South is easy due to the nature of the relations between them creating a “soft border” more similar to that of England and Wales than any “hard borders”. When coming or going to Europe the least likely route to be intercepted is, in some cases, through the Republic of Ireland due to its relation with the rest of Europe and the softer border. 

The preference for land travel tends to depend on the country of origin. For example if the group or trafficker or victim originates from outside of Europe, such as Vietnam for example, they tend to enter European countries, then travel across land to Northern France before the final leg of the journey to the UK clandestine in vehicles.1(23 )  For example in 2007 it was reported by the BBC that members of an organised crime gang stated a preference for smuggling children from Bulgaria to Britain across the land of France to the republic of Ireland through Rosslare port.6 (28). Victims from Albania are often clandestine the whole journey, driven to the UK undisclosed, crossing Germany, Belgium and then France; you can only imagine the horrendous conditions of being trapped in a van for that long.1 (25) Even worse than enduring the horrendous conditions of getting to the destination, once arrived many traffickers trap the victims by making them repay the debt incurred by the journey. For example when Vietnamese victims are trafficked for cannabis they travel in the back of a lorry often debt bonded for the cost of being brought there by either deducting it from their wages or not giving them wages at all. Debts have been reported of between £10,000-26,0000.2 (22) 

However, it has been noted that the number of victims transported by clandestine means has reduced. For example, there are less from Eastern Europe as well as there being no children from West and East Africa in the CEOP Centre’s data being trafficked overland.3 (19) This is thought to be due to the decreasing cost of air travel. This makes direct flights less costly and easier. 

This decrease in the amount of clandestine lorry travel is likely to be good for catching traffickers as it is easier to monitor, but while it still occurs it is important for the border force to continue to be trained to investigate suspicious lorries. 

Internal trafficking

It is easy to think of trafficking as moving vast distances, however, trafficking can be moving very small distances – even across a street. In Northern Ireland, traffickers often move their victims around the country. This is especially true of the sex trade, where brothels move to avoid suspicion. It also ensures that the victims cannot make contacts and organise an escape. Traffickers utilise the 21st century’s mobilisation and ease of transport that means that they can organise themselves very quickly and design an escape if any concerns are raised.

This use of transport is especially true on the island of Ireland that houses both the North and South. Transportation of victims are moved exclusively by land between the two countries. Trafficking on this island is often operated by criminal gangs across border operating as if it was a single jurisdiction rather than two.

Fraud and coercion

There remains the question of how victims can even get past the border. There are many ways that traffickers manage to traffik individuals undetected. 

Clandestine – The first has already been mentioned. Victims are smuggled past the border through concealment in containers and vehicles.

Fraudulent documentation – This is often used to traffik victims, and if spotted this is a good way to intercept the trafficker or the victim in transit. 

Real documentation – That is often paid for by the trafficker. They then use this debt to coerce a victim into working for them. 

Coercion – Often victims are coerced into going with a trafficker, and they use their own documentation.

Willingly – Another way that the transport of victims can occur is willingly. For example some women are trafficked and exploited by males they believe are there boyfriends and are then forced into the sex industry after a period of time.

Psychological control – Some victims travel alone and do not escape or seek help due to the level of psychological control that is exercised over them by their traffickers. 

Consequently, when transporting victims, the trafficker is likely to be at his or her most vulnerable and the victim the most visible and accessible to be recovered. This is due to both their interaction with authorities, such as border force, and their uncommon interaction with the general public. In this way understanding the transport of trafficking is essential to combatting it. Both the authorities and employees involved in transport and travel and us, as the public, have a duty to be informed, to spot the signs and to report any suspicious activities.

What is being done?

Since 2009 all UK Border Agency operational staff are trained to help identify all types of trafficking, including child trafficking, and Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009 has placed a new duty on the Agency to safeguard children from harm.

There has been an initiative with airlines to help cabin crews spot the signs of  Human Trafficking developed by the Home Office and Virgin Atlantic since 2011. They now work in close contact with passengers to identify indicators since this special training package has been developed to help crew identify victims. This was created in conjunction with a 24 hour confidential line that allows them to report to border force pre-landing. Virgin Atlantic and Thomas cook staff and other airlines have participated in this training and No More Traffik is currently working on a project that would involve a global approach to airline and airport staff training as well as passenger awareness.

The World Tourism Organization, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and Unesco are jointly working on educating passengers as they travel.

What can we do?

Possibly the most important change that can be made to prevent the transport of trafficked individuals is public awareness. This is something that every single one of us can do with very little effort. Be aware of the passengers around you and be informed of the signs of trafficking as you may be the only person who interacts with the victim before they reach their destination. We have a role on the frontline and we are likely to be the most effective weapon against human trafficking that border force has. 

Follow the #traffikfreetravel campaign as we highlight the signs to look out for whether you are travelling by air, sea, or land. Eyes open!

  • Sources

  • https://ec.europa.eu/anti-trafficking/sites/antitrafficking/files/first_annual_report_of_the_inter-departmental_ministerial_group_on_human_trafficking_0.pdf 
  • http://www.nationalcrimeagency.gov.uk/publications/399-nca-strategic-assessment-the-nature-and-scale-of-human-trafficking-in-2013/file
  • https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/115923/occ103.pdf  
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